Some Consolidated Notes upon Receiving Honourable Mention for the HWDSB Commons from the Ken Spencer Award

This post “borrows” from a number of other pieces I have written on the HWDSB Commons. Those posts can be found here and here.

The HWDSB Commons is a space for collaboration. It collects the myriad voices of HWDSB staff and students in a variety of public and private spaces, creating a stage where learners publish; and where they may give and receive feedback on the creations of others.

It’s a space where learners can grow to understand what it means to be a good citizen in this digital world. It creates authentic spaces for connections to be made with other learners: within their class, within their school, into the community, and with the rest of the world.

It is a social learning network.

The HWDSB Commons was born in a Grade 5-6 Gifted class three years ago, in Dundas Ontario, just outside of Hamilton. The students that made up that class were from all over the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board catchment. Identified as Gifted in grade 4, the students selected for this system gifted class were taxied from all corners of the city to my classroom. They were a diverse group. Some had been outsiders at their home school, and now being pulled together in this new class, within a new (to them) K-8 school, they were equally detached and ostracized by their “giftie” status on the playground, creating a special bond.

It was my first year teaching the Gifted program, and although I attempt to approach every new class prepared to throw everything out the window based on the differing strengths and needs of each student, the pressure to re-invent my program weighed heavier with this particular group. For the first few months we had a board social worker visit our classroom to help work on communication, collaboration, and social skills.

Technology had always played a part in my programming. I had utilized different blogging platforms every year, riding the carousel of “new tools” as they emerged on the edu-horizon. For one reason or another, every year there seemed to emerge a reason to change. Some of it certainly was in pursuit of the “shiny new thing”. Like everyone else, teachers can be susceptible to the “bigger, better, faster, more” proclamations of advertisers, and in this case, the advertisers were selling this year’s new learning-management-blogging-collaboration platform. With all of the tools I had utilized, I was starting to feel like I was being taken for a ride: a passenger on a trip for which I did not know the destination. What made this worse was that I was blindly carrying my students along on the journey. The most recent example had been Edublogs. They have since changed their policy, but at the time, with the class I had taught the previous year, the platform decided that they had accrued enough of a user-base to begin to monetize their tool (there is an argument to be made that every “free” tool is awaiting this opportunity to switch from magnanimous to money-maker). One morning, when we logged in to visit our blogs, we now noticed two different sets of hyperlinks: single underlined links which the students had added — having been taught to reference their work, and link to other authors both within their class and around the world — and a new set of double-underlined links that took them to advertisements. Because these new links were machine generated directly within the students’ work, it was not rare to see a blog post referencing getting milk from the refrigerator, hyperlinking to an appliance vendor’s website.

I needed a better way. I needed to be in better control of the tool to ensure I wouldn’t have to switch gears again mid-year. I knew that there were open source tools available that might fit the need, but I had no idea what I was doing. Although I play a role within the development of web tools today, at the time, I knew my way around the web, and web 2.0 tools, but I didn’t know a computer server from a restaurant server. Despite that, everything that I was experiencing was telling me that I needed to build my own platform. So I started reading, and I stumbled upon two open source projects that looked like they would fit my needs: WordPress, and BuddyPress. WordPress is the platform that Edublogs was built upon, and although I wasn’t happy with their new Terms of Use, I had enjoyed the platform. A WordPress Multi User install would allow my students to each have their own blogs. That was great, but I also felt that I needed a way to centralize the conversation. In the past I had subscribed to my students’ blogs using an RSS reader. This was great for me, but didn’t really help the students connect with each other. The students could subscribe to each other in the same way, but it wasn’t a simple process, and didn’t lead to the type of engagement I was hoping to achieve. Buddypress changed this. It’s a plugin (like an app for your blog, that adds additional functionality) that adds a social networking layer to your WordPress Multi User install. Now the students could follow each other’s blogs. That was really the only functionality that I was looking for. The fact that they could also “friend” each other, and participate in centralized groups, was extra. Although things have now shifted greatly, at the time we didn’t talk about Digital Citizenship, and managing Digital Footprints the way we do today. I had created a space where we could start to have conversations about this; where we could practice managing an online profile, an avatar, the politics of “friending” and “following”, and a host of other lessons.

So now I had a platform. It was called Litcircuits# (which I thought was a clever play on the Literature Circles I would be primarily replacing using technology). I had students engaged in personal blogs as online learning portfolios, and I had students participating in Book Club-style discussion groups, and practicing updating their profiles, and understanding the politics of ensuring that we should all be “friends” within this instructional space. It was going very well. Students were writing, and not necessarily “here is the writing prompt for the week” kind of writing, but writing based on their personal interests. When the writing prompts were presented, they focused on things like the Earthquake in Haiti, the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill, or the Beijing Olympics.

At the same time I started running into other teachers, both at my own school, and within the board, who were also struggling with the same commercial carousel of tools. Litcircuits became the blogging platform for (no longer available), a blog that has migrated and now resides on the HWDSB Commons at Her classroom blog, can be found here, and houses posts from her Grade 1-2 class (the youngest of our bloggers on the Commons). Bill Hughey was also one of the initial teachers who joined me on Litcircuits; his current Commons blog can be found here.

In the three years since starting that blogging platform for 25 students in Dundas, this classroom vision has grown into a Board Wide Learning Network. Having a board standard platform solves a number of problems, but I will first share why I believe so passionately in what we are building:

  • Blogs provide a “centralized portfolio” where creative work can be posted from multiple disciplines
  • Blogs on a standardized platform provide an ongoing digital portfolio that the student will continue contributing to from year to year, instead of having to utilize a different tool for each class, for each year, for each assignment
  • This ongoing digital portfolio allows teachers to assess the level of achievement of students entering their classrooms (see the work from June in early Sept.)
  • Digital portfolios allow for better sharing of student work (the display wall becomes infinitely larger, and more accessible to other feedback and monitoring by other teachers, administration, and students), leading to a better knowledge of our students, and more sources of descriptive feedback: a key component in the learning process
  • Digital portfolios/Blogs, by their very nature, are conversation tools that enable feedback to occur from multiple sources. Assessment as Learning occurs organically as students read and comment on each others’ submissions
  • An authentic audience is created.  The teacher is no longer the only “reader” of the work
  • A community of writers is created.
  • The portfolio becomes a repository where creations from other Web 2.0 tools (stop motion animation, podcasting, comics, movies etc.) can be centrally located, shared, and assessed. The portfolio becomes the “binder” where all digital work is collected
  • A centralized digital community of learners allows for a collaborative curriculum, where teachers are able to not only share lesson ideas, but also share student exemplars of previous lessons that can then be implemented within other classrooms

Fast-forward a year, to where I find myself hired as an HWDSB 21st Century Fluencies Consultant. My initial hope was to immediately re-create the success I had seen within my classroom; but of course the pace at which a teacher of 25 students in a classroom can innovate is very different from the pace of change for a board of more than 50 000. To add to that, it wasn’t an easy sale. Actually there was a year’s worth of insistence. I had joined the team just as the role had been changed from panel-centric to supporting K-12, the added Secondary facet was an additional unexpected element. I was sharing an office with Aaron Puley — former Secondary IT Team Consultant cum North Cluster K-12 21st Century Fluencies Consultant — which meant we could compare notes and ease preconceptions about the panel of teachers we had not yet worked among. A common enthusiasm for blogging quickly emerged.

I had met Aaron at an after school blogging in service while I was still a teacher in the classroom. He had used Blogger with his students, and as the IT Consultant had spent the previous year helping schools launch WordPress-based websites for Parent and Community communication. Putting us in the same office together was the catalyst for the HWDSB Commons.

It was showing Aaron litcircuits that led to him creating The Learninghood (I’m sure he’ll let me take the credit for that). Aaron’s partner Jen Faulkner was teaching Science at the time in the Grand Erie board, so we had a captive group of students in Secondary to test theories that I had explored in Elementary. This work culminated at the end of that year in an ISTE presentation with Jen on the power of  WordPress and BuddyPress, The Learninghood, and Digital Learning Centres, to engage students and shift the learning in the secondary classroom in student-centric ways.

So we had our test cases, and we had a shiny new URL ( now defunct) that we thought we could use to pilot a few blogging initiatives around the board. We were still trying to convince enough people that having a board blogging platform was a good idea, so we thought we could select just a few classrooms who we could monitor, that would provide some evidence on why we needed to move forward into this very uncharted territory. Around the same time, Tumblr — which we had been endorsing as a possible platform for student collaboration — was blocked by our board filters. What we initially thought was an overzealous netsweeper turned out to be a necessary block: the commercial blogging platform that we had been sending teachers to was suddenly starting to fill up with pornography, and the owners of Tumblr were more interested in bulking up the number of sites they were hosting, than in moderating their community. Suddenly, and the board-wide collaboration space it represented, became even more attractive.

We started putting students and teachers on it: lots of students and teachers.
This was on a shared hosting server that was costing me about $10 a month. With one classroom of 25, that was okay; but with 1000 bloggers, the server started to strain.

It wasn’t until April of that year that it started to look like we might get a server within the board. We would still need to maintain the site, but we would get space within the firewall. Our principal at the time, Lisa Neale, arranged for meetings with all of the necessary board technicians to ensure compatibility with existing systems and to link the site to our Active Directory to help ease username management issues. She also found the money in our budget to purchase the server on which the Commons would live. (She continues to support adoption among her principal colleagues, and models what blogging looks like at the administrator level.) Luckily June tends to be a bit quieter in the office, so we spent most of that month planning the building of the site.

I would build the site over most of that summer break (2011), knowing that if I waited to launch the site until the middle of the year, we would lose the whole year. The site needed to be ready for a September launch.

The build was bitter-sweet, because Aaron had taken on a new role as the Student and Parent Engagement Consultant, and I was worried that without him around to help support the building and the launch, we might lose momentum. I should have known better of course, because in that new role, Aaron found ways to integrate the Commons in the kinds of large-scale projects that have had a huge impact on adoption of the platform. As I promoted adoption at a school level adding students and teachers a class at a time, Aaron launched initiatives like the Bulldog’s Literacy Blog, the Director’s Student Voice Forum, the ecoschools initiative, and the Bruce Trail Trek, that have penetrated corners of the Board we would not have reached as 21CL Consultants (at some point in there we changed our name to 21st Century Learning Consultants). They are also proof of the systemic changes possible once you have an engaging platform accessible to every member of the board.

As the Commons grew, it gained two other co-pilots: Thomas Ro and Tim Kivell (new 21st Century Learning Consultants). These two are staunch supporters of the Commons, and believe strongly in the ways it improves the learning here in HWDSB. They stepped in on that launch year and have been blogging missionaries ever since. In fact, it was Thomas Ro’s passion about the Commons that led to the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat deciding to make these videos that feature the work of Lisa, Thomas, Tim, and I, during the first year of the HWDSB Commons.

I’m not exactly sure what I would do out in classrooms everyday if I wasn’t talking about blogging and the HWDSB Commons. It informs so much of my work. From its initial birth in that classroom in Dundas, to conversations in that corner office with Aaron a year later, to a Social Learning platform that has recently broken the 10 000 user barrier. There is still a lot of work to do. Now that we have this platform, there are a number of different strategies needed to building capacity at a system level, and bring about systemic change.

We need the early adopters — the ones who already have blogs running in their classroom and understand the ways they can engage and connect the learners in myriad ways. A solid foundation of teachers who understand how to blend the learning going on in their rooms with this online space. Teachers who realize that a blog isn’t an additional thing that you do when all your “real” school work is done, and are finding ways in which this new space will shape an entirely new way of approaching the learning; one where students are more easily able to learn from each other, as well as from their teacher.

Those ones who are easy to convince, and are already on the path, are our first step. The next step is working with those who have never embarked on any type of instruction that resembles what we see happening on the HWDSB Commons. I sit in school meetings around school self-assessment, around Collaborative Inquiry models of instruction, around the School Effectiveness Framework and how it can shape what our learning spaces should look like, and how they should operate, and I see blogs all over the place: I wear blog-coloured glasses. You talk about descriptive feedback, and I think of a blog with students and teachers commenting on each other’s output. You talk about cross-curricular collaboration, and I think of a group blog. You talk about making thinking visible, and sharing student work, and I see it published online. You talk about data, and I see a student’s e-portfolio containing all their output from years past.

I see adoption of blogging in the classroom on a continuum. You start with a website. It’s the easiest way in. You need a website for your class. And that website may start out as a “it’s-pizza-day-tomorrow-don’t-forget-to-bring-your-permission-forms-in” site. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a necessary communication home to parents, but on the “Bump-it-up” wall, it’s the lecture-style classroom of the blogging continuum. It’s interesting how the user roles we can provision to students on the platform applies in this continuum. The teacher is always the Administrator, but in this iteration, the student is merely a Subscriber.

Once the site exists we can start to look for opportunities to help the students graduate toward Contributor status. Enable comments on the site and you’re there. The teacher still controls the discussion; but the students can add their voices. Those voices are carefully moderated. The content they post is vetted before it reaches its audience. This is gradual release. Implementing a new form of interaction within your learning space should be gradual. There is logic in this from a student perspective as well. Show them how the parachute works before you throw them off the edge of the cliff, hoping they’ll find their wings.

Now that  the students are contributing we can explore setting them as Authors. Empower them to post and publish. Find ways to let them start conversations, instead of just answering questions. Don’t do the same thing you did on a black-line master on a blog. There’s little opportunity to show higher order thinking on a multiple choice test.

So now that they are all Authors on your blog, it’s getting a bit crowded. It must be time to give them their own blog, where they can be Administrators. Let them find their own voice. Let them write about the things they are passionate about. Put them in a space where they can think about those last steps in the writing process that we struggle with making authentic in the classroom: writing for an audience, and publication. This isn’t to say that they aren’t still working on curriculum. Don’t misunderstand me; the learning goals are up on the wall; the students know what they need to do, what they need to accomplish and demonstrate in order to be successful; but you are giving them choice around how they are going to demonstrate this learning goal, and whether by song, film, poem, slideshow, or interpretive dance (filmed and shared on youtube of course), this learning is demonstrated with the blog as their stage; with comments enabled to receive the feedback we all need as artists (and the greatest scientists and mathematicians are artists of their medium, as well as the painters and wordsmiths you knee-jerk to) in order to move forward and grow.

This is my Bump it Up continuum, and it is the work we are embedded in right now. It is the way we see making this the catalyst to systemic change. We are experimenting with video and see our next steps (despite having more to do within our own board) as showing how to integrate this Social Learning framework with other Ministry provisioned tools. If awarded funding through this initiative, I would redirect the money directly back into this large digital classroom we have built, finding ways to integrate other spaces (like the Ministry Learning Management System, and Google Apps, and other OSAPAC software) into our Commons. I think we have a model that could be replicated in other districts, especially as I watch my colleagues from other boards riding the Commercial tools carousel: three years ago it was Ning, then Collaborize Classroom, and now Edmodo seems to the the current Tool du Jour. How soon before they are bought by another company that doesn’t see the value in what they are doing without more immediate monetary gain?  The open source movement values collaboration, and creating for the public good, and sharing widely: all values we endorse within the school system. The HWDSB Commons ensures that the students are not the product, being sold to advertisers. It allows us to be responsive to the specific needs of our community, and it connects us with other learners across the hallway, within the school board, and around the world.

Published by jarbenne

Jared Bennett is the Student Information System Consultant at Hamilton Wentworth District School Board.

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